Obama's first year transparency record receives mixed reviews

Christine Beckett | Freedom of Information | Quicklink | March 17, 2010

High-ranking officials within the Obama administration marked Sunshine Week by touting strides the administration has taken to increase government transparency, but open-government advocates used the weeklong event to point out areas where transparency efforts still fall short.

Attorney General Eric Holder spoke to Freedom of Information Act officials at the Justice Department about the shift towards a presumption of openness. Norm Eisen, special counsel to the president on ethics and government reform, spoke at the Newseum's First Amendment Center about grades the administration received for its open-government policies. Both conceded more needs to be done.

In a statement, President Obama himself added, "We are proud of these accomplishments, but our work is not done. We will continue to work toward an unmatched level of transparency."

Two studies released this week tempered the optimism of the administration's remarks. The Associated Press released an analysis of the administration's FOIA track record that showed during Obama's first year there has been little change in the use of exemptions, number of requests processed and number of records denials when compared to the final year of the Bush administration.

A study released Sunday by the National Security Archive was also critical of the government. It found that most federal agencies failed to take any affirmative steps toward transparency despite Obama's directives.

In a memorandum released Tuesday, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and counsel Bob Bauer urged agency and department heads to take steps to improve implementation of Obama's FOIA memorandum, which he wrote on his first day in office.

"We appreciate your efforts to implement the Memorandum on FOIA, and we are confident that the Chief FOIA Officer Reports you filed will show progress," Tuesday's memo read. "But more work remains to be done, and such work requires persistent effort."